Three young people on colorful clothes from the Rule of 20-10-5 blog post

The Rule of 20-10-5

September 21, 2022

In conversations with clients or colleagues, I find myself citing an old design principle with surprising frequency. Nearly 40 years ago while working on a poster design assignment, my professor emphasized the Rule of 20-10-5.

Imagine you are looking at a concert poster from 20 feet away. You will notice colors and images. You can probably read the band’s name. You may be intrigued and move closer. From 10 feet away, you would be able to see the show date and the venue. Now you’re really interested! As you move closer still, at 5 feet away, you will learn more about the opening act, ticket prices, and where to buy them. Let’s go!

Bite-sized design

The rule impresses upon the designer the need to understand both information hierarchy and human behavior. People don’t consume information all at once. If everything is equally weighted or equally important in any design, your audience has to work too hard to make sense of it.

Given a choice, people will almost always gravitate to things that are easy. If your design erects barriers to understanding, or barriers to completing a task, your audience will either give up or seek an easier path. They don’t want to work that hard. They want you to organize and prioritize things for them.

When your design rewards someone’s interest and attention, they are likely to give you more of both. They move closer. They are willing to invest more of their time. A clear design hierarchy makes the most important thing look like the most important thing.

Fear of missing out

The biggest obstacle to making an impression is rarely a lack of information, but a lack of prioritizing that information. It’s as if the client is thinking, “We have only one chance to share this, and we don’t want our audience to miss it. What if they aren’t interested at a glance?”

This approach can negatively affect both your messaging and design. It reveals a lack of understanding about what your audience wants from you and, just as noteworthy, it reveals a lack of clarity about what you want from your audience.

Let’s play this out. What if someone notices your poster from the proverbial 20 feet away, and then chooses to turn their attention elsewhere? If the design and copy is properly focused, at the very minimum they were exposed to your highest priority takeaway. If they get nothing else from the encounter, at least you made that one impression.

In contrast, a poorly-focused piece will not even clear that low hurdle.

Standing the test of time

We don’t always recognize good advice when we hear it. As a child, you may have rolled your eyes at something your mom or dad said only to realize its timeless wisdom many years later.

The beauty of the Rule of 20-10-5 is that it applies equally well to a poster design, website, fundraising campaign, or just about anything else. Treating your marketing communications as a series of invitations to “move closer” represents a promise that your audience will be rewarded for their time.

Today, the rule is even more relevant if you consider the importance of time versus distance. What would you want your audience to know if you only had 20 seconds to share it? How about 10 seconds? And if you can only keep their attention for 5 seconds, what is the one impression they should take away?

Getting and keeping your audience’s attention is more difficult than ever. If you assume everyone wants the executive summary – just the highlights – the Rule of 20-10-5 will make your communications more inviting and impactful.

Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter

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